“India has the maximum number of young people and these young people will enter the labor market in the next two decades.” These words by the World Bank’s Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Sri Mulyani Indrawati at the Malaviya National Institute of Technology campus, Jaipur, on September 23, 2015, had all of us listening with rapt attention.
If you thought Indian women would shy away from working in that traditionally male preserve - the formidable public transport system - think again. Young women in Chandigarh are daring to turn stereotypes on their head by signing up in large numbers to work as bus conductors! And that too on regular public buses, not just on female-only ‘ladies specials’.
India has long been criticized for strict labour laws and burdensome business regulatory environment. This can also be easily substantiated by the fact that India is ranked 134 out of 189 economies in terms of ease of doing business by World Bank in 2014 (1). Indian labour market is subject to more than 50 central government laws and regulations that deals with range of subjects such as employment condition, social security, wages, industrial relations to name a few. As labour is a “concurrent” subject in Indian constitution, both state and central government can pass laws pertaining to this subject within their jurisdiction. As a result, there are numerous other state specific labour laws as well which varies from one state to other.
Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).
Halima Khatun never had to worry about putting food on the table when her husband was alive. Her husband had a business which provided enough for their four children and they lived fairly contented till seven years ago, when her husband suddenly passed away.
As the years went by, one by one the children married, moved out and had their own family to take care of. Halima was left alone, fending for herself, and took up weaving mats and embroidery to help get by. But then her daughter, who used to work at a garments factory in the city after her divorce, suddenly fell sick and unable to work, she moved back in with her four-year old son. Halima was thrown into utter desperation and knew not how to make ends meet.
“Young people ought not to be idle,” quipped Margaret Thatcher, “It is very bad for them.” That was twenty years ago. With over a million youth currently out of work in Britain today – 21% of the population – her words remain unfortunately prophetic. And it’s not just industrial countries that are in a funk. The “arc of unemployment” does not discriminate: it cuts across southern Europe through the Middle East to South Asia. Almost half of the world’s young people live along this arc, and it is a demographic dividend that is quickly becoming a demographic liability.
Consider South Asia: a region home to the largest proportion of unemployed and inactive youth in the developing world, a whopping 31%. Many attribute this to social norms, as many South Asian women do not work for cultural reasons. But with a growing middle class, gender norms are rapidly evolving.
It is hard to talk about South Asia without invoking its demographics. The region will contribute nearly 40 percent of the growth in the world’s working age (15-64) population, and will need to add a staggering 1 to 1.2 million new entrants to the labor market every month for the next two decades. Absorbing the influx of youth into the labor force is one of South Asia’s core challenges. But while economists grapple with employment statistics and economic policy, jobs are created at the grassroots. Entrepreneurship is the spark that lights the fire, and the engine that generates opportunities in local communities.
“While unemployment is around 5% in Sri Lanka, youth unemployment is nearly 3 times that. Youth unemployment is a critical challenge for us right now”, I said, in my remarks on Sri Lankan perspectives at a South Asian youth dialogue on the sidelines of the World Bank–IMF Spring Meetings last month. “Hey, what are you complaining about? Youth unemployment is almost 50% in Greece right now!”, was the immediate response I got from a World Banker in the audience. I was taken slightly aback, but it made it very clear to me - the youth unemployment issue is a gripping issue for many of the world’s economies right now, and even if the numbers may not always be on the same scale and each country has different reasons for why it’s a high-priority policy issue right now.
The last year and a half has seen everyone sit up and take notice of youth unemployment like never before – either because of the Arab Spring or protests by discontent educated youth in European capitals. The attention of economists and governments alike is on it – how did it become such a challenge? How can we address it?
We launched South Asia’s first regional report, ‘More and Better Jobs in South Asia’ in a series of events in Dhaka early last week.
Through events including a seminar with youth at the University of Dhaka, a formal report launch the next day, a TV interview with the South Asia Chief Economist, Kalpana Kochchar, and an op-ed in the leading English language newspaper, the report helped generate discussion on core economic challenges facing Bangladesh, as job creation are highly correlated with the challenges of faster growth.
Bangladesh, along with other South Asian countries, has seen steady job growth and a substantial decrease in poverty over the past three decades. The country has added nearly 1.2 million new jobs every year over the last ten years, and this has been accompanied by increasing real wages and declining poverty amongst all categories of workers. This performance will have to be improved in the future, owing to Bangladesh's early progress in its demographic transition. With substantial reductions in infant and child mortality following a significant decline in fertility rates, Bangladesh's working age population is growing more rapidly than its young and old dependents. In turn, this can be attributed to Bangladesh’s success in nurturing the desire for smaller families, through its reproductive health program as well as its emphasis on girls’ education.
I’ve just concluded a discussion on addressing youth unemployment around the world with experts at the Global Youth Conference currently happening and wanted to hear your thought as well as share some of my own on South Asia. Indeed, South Asia has grown rapidly and has created more and mostly better jobs. The region created 800,000 new jobs per month in the last ten years boosting economic growth and reducing poverty. Arrive in any South Asian metropolis and you’re often hit by the richness of activity throughout its busy streets.
The region’s coming demographic transition of more young people entering the work force is expected to contribute nearly 40 percent of the growth in the world’s working age (15—64) population over the next several decades. However, youth in South Asia still face many challenges during their transition to adulthood including malnutrition, gender inequality and lack of access to quality education. More working age people with less children and elderly dependants to support will either become an asset for the region to continue growing or a curse depending on the enabling environment for the creation of productive jobs.
- Sri Lanka
- South Asia
- Public Sector and Governance
- Private Sector Development
- Macroeconomics and Economic Growth
- Information and Communication Technologies
- Financial Sector
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- Kalpana Kochhar
- chief economist